It’s Not All “A Beautiful Mind”

The Hollow City by Dan Wells

Written by Dan Wells

At the Denver WorldCon in 2008 they had a panel on mental illness in fiction, and having written a series about a boy with sociopathy I thought it would be cool to check it out. I don’t know what I was expecting; maybe some kind of retrospective of cool stories about mental disorders, but what I got was far more interesting and valuable. The audience was made up almost entirely of people who struggled with mental illness, either personally or through someone in their family, and they didn’t want to talk about A Beautiful Mind or anything like it—they wanted to vent. The entertainment industry was using their misfortune as a plot device, and they were pissed. One comment struck me as especially powerful, and I paraphrase it here: “Mental illness in fiction is either demonized or sainted—we’re all either Silence of the Lambs or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t mind seeing characters with mental illness—I love it, because I love to read about characters I can identify with—but I want to see it treated like a real thing instead of a metaphor.”

I had just begun to work on the very early drafts of a book that would become The Hollow City, my new novel about a man with schizophrenia, and because of that panel I challenged myself to treat the disease, like the commenter said, as realistically as I could. The basic hook of the novel is simple: a man with schizophrenia realizes that some of the monsters he sees are real. Yes, there is some sensationalizing—this is a supernatural thriller, after all, and “sensational” is kind of what we’re aiming for. But I decided to delve much deeper into schizophrenia, to portray as closely as I could what it’s like to live with a disease that warps your reality.

I struggled for over a year, and my writing group suffered patiently through several drafts that simply didn’t work. I was trying to write a horror story and a medical documentary at the same time, and there’s no way to do that right. When I was ready to give up, my friend Janci came back to me with the latest draft. Janci has clinical depression, and she’d written a huge note in the margin of one of the pages: “There is nothing scarier in the whole world than not being able to trust your own mind.” I knew I’d found the key that would make the story work, and I picked Janci’s brain for days. Her contribution was invaluable, and the book is dedicated to her. (She’s also an excellent author in her own right, with a book coming out this summer called Chasing the Skip. Look it up!)

The Hollow City, in its final form, is not a thriller about schizophrenia; it’s a thriller with a schizophrenic hero. The difference is key. Insecure artist that I am, I sent some early copies to a few more friends and readers, hoping for some last minute feedback, and just yesterday one of them got back to me. “This book was very scary,” she said, “but it helped me to understand my mother, and to forgive her.”

That is, without question, the best review I’ve ever had.

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0 thoughts on “It’s Not All “A Beautiful Mind”

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  3. Minor edit: it’s a thriller with a schizophrenic hero. To – it’s a thriller with a hero who has schizophrenia. The man is not his illness, he’s a man, who just happens to suffer from this type of mental illness.

    • The revision you suggest means the same thing. The word “schizophrenic” is an adjective and describes the noun hero, so the use here is perfectly valid. The only real difference here is that your version is more verbose, which to a writer is often anathema. (Authors often deal with hard limits on word count when publishing articles, even on web sites.)

      Some people might discern a fine shade of meaning between the two phrasings, based on the ordering of the words, but I don’t detect this. I would rather put my trust in the author’s phrasing (or his editor’s) as that-which-he-intended. The only people who would even find this remotely confusing would be non-native English speakers and English speakers who don’t do a lot of reading.

      • To Dan’s credit, when he went to Worldcon he really took on board the audiences anger and resentment about how mental illness has been misrepresented as a plot device over the years. He writes respectfully about how he took away the lessons from that experience and applies it to his new novel.

        Its a not a fine shade of meaning and has nothing to do with confusion. Rather it’s an example of the changing landscape of definition. Many people, like those in the conference, argued very strongly over 20 years ago that referring to a person as ‘schizophrenic’ globalises their illness and as a result, acts as a dehumanising barrier that prevents them been seen as a person first. Instead they felt that they were seen as their illness. They argued, and the clinical sector around the world listened. You’d be hard pressed to find a clinician, psychiatric nurse or social worker who isn’t aware if the importance of this issue.

        Language is important but it’s also subject to evolution in the way we use words and phrases. The way that race and culture has been discussed in the USA over the past 50 years is a prime example of how nouns and adjectives that were once acceptable in the past are no longer viewed as appropriate. Feminism has brought with it many other examples of the changing landscape of how terms once used in relation to women are now seen as offensive. The disability sector has their own similar examples, and so on.

        Word count may indeed be important but it would be ironic for Mr Wells to offend the very people he set out to deal with respectfully.

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